“Pathmakers” at MAD: Women and Design
Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today at the Museum of Art & Design
April 28 to September 27, 2015
2 Columbus Circle
New York City, 212 299 7777
traveling to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, October 30, 2015 to February 28, 2016
The stated purpose of this show is to consider the notable contributions of women to modernism in postwar visual culture. Certainly an argument can be made for paying more attention to the contributions women within craft traditions, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, an era when painting, sculpture and architecture were largely dominated by men. Artists such as Ruth Asawa, Lenore Tawney, Toshiko Takaezu and Karen Karnes used such materials as metals, textiles and clay in ways that push their work toward fine art concerns, demanding to be seen in a fine art context. Yet to date, while each of these artists is well known, their collective contribution has remained unexamined.
The current show at MAD aims to adjust this imbalance, in part through sheer volume of works presented — over 100 individual works by 42 artists fill every gallery on two floors. The range is comprehensive and ambitious. By including important Scandinavian designers such as Rut Bryky and Vivianna Torun Brulow-Hube, the parallels between women working in Scandinavia and the United States are highlighted. And by focusing on European émigrés such as Anni Albers and Maija Grotell, the legacy of modernism within American craft is established. Bauhaus trained, Albers and Grotell brought with them the conviction that craft could serve as an arena of modernist innovation.
The exhibition begins on the second floor where it focuses on a particular cadre of artists, who besides Asawa, Karnes, Lenore Tawney and Takaezu included Sheila Hicks and Alice Kogawa Parrott, who were influential as designers, makers and teachers. As the show points out, this pioneering group came to maturity along with the Museum of Arts and Design itself, which was founded in 1956 at the center of the emerging American modern craft movement.
Marianne Strengell and Grotell taught for many years at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where their students included Takaezu and Parrott. The placement of works by mentors, protégés and colleagues underlines the networks and alliances that influenced and sustained these women throughout their careers.
Many pairings of “craft” and “fine art” have been integrated to encourage viewers to reconsider traditional categories and, de facto, to rethink modernist narrative in light of gender. For the most part this works well, although some of the pairings need more explanation. It is not clear why works by Lee Krasner and Eva Hesse, for example, have been paired with Takaezu and Tawney. They didn’t influence each other much and the formal connections are slight. But this is a minor quibble in what is otherwise a feast of works by women rarely seen together on this scale.
One need only think of the careers of male artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Peter Voulkos and Scott Burton, to recognize the need to further examine the concerns raised by this show. Noguchi did a great deal of design work throughout his career, including lamps, chairs, set design but he was always located firmly within a fine arts context. Voulkos made wheel-thrown vessels throughout his life, but he is widely recognized for pushing clay into the realm of sculpture. Perhaps the most dramatic comparison might be Burton, who designed objects out of marble and stone intended to be viewed aesthetically while at the same time functioning as chairs, tables, etc. This paradigm can be traced right back to Constantin Brancusi whose Endless Column ensemble, erected in Romania in 1934, includes a large stone table with twelve stone chairs that Brancusi himself felt was as important to the whole as the column itself. The point being that male artists have not had problems playing with craft traditions and making utilitarian objects, but women who made work in craft areas were historically relegated to this arena.
Nevertheless, the exhibition at MAD is celebratory. Viewers venturing through the connected rooms will make many surprising discoveries: Marianne Strengell’s Forecast, a rug made from 80% aluminum for Alcoa; framed weavings by Anni Albers; a striking metal construction by Vivian Beer for instance. A piece titled DE—SIGN by Gabriel Ann Mahler, which includes a garment and a video exploring stereotypical male and female postures and clothing, was a revelation for this viewer. For the most part, the fourth floor is filled with later generations of artists and designers. Yet, as one enters these galleries, dominated for the most part by works of industrial design, one encounters an interesting counterpoint and nod to design legacy in a pairing of ceramic works by British ceramicist Magdelane Odundo. These raven-black clay forms are stunning: they provoke, startle and mystify by being at once vessel and sculptural form.
One of the delightful ironies of the exhibition is that it includes the work of contemporary artists such as Polly Apfelbaum. Apfelbaum is firmly rooted in a fine art context but her large, site-specific installation of textiles was inspired by A Handweavers Pattern Book. She pushes back toward a craft heritage by choosing not to paint on stretched canvas but on silk in such a way that the piece spreads out as a series of colored scarves. She confidently makes feminist connections to craft and clothing.
“Pathmakers” does a great deal to meet its goal of locating women within central currents of mid-century modernist narrative. Most importantly, this exhibition opens the opportunity for new lines of enquiry into the intersections of craft, gender and modernism.